Experts answer five important questions about the COVID vaccine—and it's exactly what anyone who is putting off getting it will want to know.

By Jenny Chen
May 07, 2021
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The vaccine has finally landed, and that's a big win (thank you, scientists). For anyone on the fence because it's new, and for those who have lingering questions about post-vaccine life, we asked health experts to answer some frequent queries.

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I'm nervous about the vaccine. It's still brand-new, and there could be side effects. Won't I be better off waiting longer to get it?

Bottom line: Being vaccinated is far safer than not being vaccinated. Healthy adults of all ages have become severely ill after being infected with COVID-19, and it's impossible to predict how anyone will react to the virus. "Getting the vaccine is so important," says Gigi Gronvall, Ph.D., a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. It's not only for any one person's sake, she says, but because "it protects the people around you." If we've learned one thing in the past year, it's that COVID is bigger than any one individual. Getting vaccinated nudges everyone closer to herd immunity—the point at which the virus runs out of human hosts to infect and, as a result, ceases to be active. And it may be reassuring to note that you are far from the first: About 150 million people in the United States have had at least one dose. 

To the question of side effects: While some people have flulike symptoms post-vaccination, such as aches, chills, fatigue, or fever, experts say this is a small price to pay for lowering your risk of serious illness. You may also be among those who don't experience any side effects at all—about half of all those vaccinated.

As to reports of more serious effects such as blood clots, which can be alarming, it's helpful to put them in context. In April, use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was paused after six recipients developed blood clots in the brain. By then, 6.8 million people had received that vaccine, meaning 0.000088 percent of them, or less than one in 1 million, were affected. According to Dr. Gronvall, one thing that carries a far higher risk for blood clots in the brain is having COVID (a 0.0039 percent risk, or a 39 in 1 million chance). 

Finally, "it's heartening that there are multiple systems in place to pick up on any safety problems," Dr. Gronvall says, adding that the FDA has acted quickly as questions have arisen.

Once I've gotten the vaccine, can I be around people again?

Although the vaccines are very effective, we don't know for certain that those who have been vaccinated can't still carry asymptomatic COVID and potentially pass it to people who haven't been vaccinated. So for the time being, according to the latest from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you still shouldn't attend medium or large gatherings, and you shouldn't visit (indoors, without a mask) with people at increased risk for severe illness from COVID. 

But if you and your hangout partners have all had your vaccinations, "there is no reason why family gatherings shouldn't become easier," says Yvette Conyers, D.N.P., assistant professor in community health and population nursing at St. John Fisher College, and the president of the Rochester Black Nurses Association. The CDC now says that fully vaccinated people can visit indoors with unvaccinated people from a single household who are at low risk for severe COVID disease without wearing masks or practicing social distancing. In other words, yes, your (healthy) child can safely snuggle with their (vaccinated) grandparents again, which we're sure is welcome news. 

But it's important not to jump the gun: Social gatherings should still wait until two weeks after everyone has received their final injection, the point when the CDC says people are "fully vaccinated." And, of course, when you're out and about in the world near strangers who may or may not be vaccinated, continue wearing a mask, since you don't know if you could be an asymptomatic carrier. 

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Does being vaccinated protect me against all variants? 

The current vaccines may offer protection against the variants of COVID that originated in South Africa, the U.K., and Brazil, and all three pharmaceutical companies are developing booster shots (and considering altering current vaccine formulas) to provide more protection. Because clinical trials for the booster shots are underway, we should know more in the months to come. But that doesn't mean you should wait to get vaccinated. These variants exist because COVID has spread unchecked, mutating as it infected more and more people. Halting the spread will also help to halt further mutations.

I'm ready. How do I get an appointment?

1. Sign up for emails from your local public-health agency and follow it on social media. 

These agencies sometimes announce online when new appointments open up or extra vaccines are available.

2. Sign up for electronic patient portals (such as MyChart, Healow, or athenaCommunicator) at any hospitals where you've received care. 

Most hospitals deliver vaccine rollout news through the patient portal and allow patients to sign up. You'll get the information a lot faster this way rather than waiting to call to set up an appointment. You can also google "vaccine bot" and your state or city to find a Twitter handle that will give you up-to-date info.

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What about trips? Can my family travel once the adults have been vaccinated? 

The CDC says that fully vaccinated people can travel safely within the U.S. However, since children cannot yet be vaccinated, it's wise to stick to driving instead of flying and to be vigilant about wearing masks and washing your hands while on the road. 

And unless your trip is essential, you should definitely avoid traveling outside the country. Per the CDC, even if you're vaccinated, international travel could potentially put you in the path of new COVID variants that you could spread upon your return to the States. 

In addition, the vaccine may not be as widely available in the country you're visiting, and its health-care systems may be more strained, says Jessica Malaty Rivera, an infectious disease epidemiologist and the science communication lead at The COVID Tracking Project

"It's an equity issue," she says, reminding would-be travelers that controlling COVID is a worldwide effort: "If one person is unwell, we're all unwell." Traveling locally (by car) is the safest choice, says Emily Landon, M.D., associate professor of medicine and executive medical director of infection prevention and control at the University of Chicago Medicine. You may feel comfortable driving somewhere within your state and renting an Airbnb with good cleaning protocols—it's a low-risk way to get a much-needed change of scenery.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's June 2021 issue as "Real Talk About the Covid-19 Vaccine." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here